Army must shed its colonial hangover

Indian Army officers need to shed the attitudinal baggage bequeathed to them by their erstwhile white masters and stay level-headed. The Army should be open to this revamp to emerge as less standoffish and more liberal

Sumit PaulUpdated: Wednesday, October 19, 2022, 08:40 AM IST
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Indian Army (Representative Photo) | PTI

In India, defence folks, tea and coffee planters are more English than the English themselves. They're the new brown sahibs. — Nirad C Chaudhury

What the diminutive Bengali genius sarcastically observed in the 1970s is still more or less relevant. But a revamp in this pejorative attitude seems to be on the cards. The Indian Army in line with Prime Minister Narendra Modi's directions has initiated the process to do away with the colonial practices and names of the units and the regiment in the force. Names and insignia such as unit and crest of colonial times, along with officers' mess procedures and traditions and customs would be reviewed, the report said.

The overwhelming colonial influence on the Indian Army should have been done away with or minimised long ago. But at least, der aayad, durust aayad (it's never too late to amend). Those who have observed the Army from close quarters will agree that the vestiges of the Raj are still palpable in the lifestyle and attitude of defence folks. Indian, or precisely the subcontinental, defence forces and folks still follow the structure and system of the British Army when officers used to be all whites and sepoys were all brown Indians. There were all British commissioned officers. Then there were JCOc (Junior Commissioned Officers), NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) and ORs (Other Ranks). JCOs, NCOs and ORs were Indians from humble backgrounds. NCOs and ORs would often do menial work and be at the beck and call of their white masters and memsahibs. It was only after 1918 that the King's Commission would be opened to Indians for whom ten places would be reserved in the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, UK, to be trained as officers of the Indian Army. But even those (Indian) Army officers faced discrimination at Sandhurst and were not often served meals in the mess with the white cadets and officers. General Jayanto Nath Chaudhuri wrote about this discrimination after his retirement as General in the Indian Army.

Indians were appalled to see the shabby treatment of sepoys by the British officers and their wives. Very few people are aware that Barrister Muhammad Ali Jinnah was extremely critical of the pejorative treatment meted out to the Indian sepoys as sahayak (orderlies) by the English officers. Alas, that still exists in the Indian Army. A sahayak (now euphemistically called a 'buddy'; earlier called 'batmen' or personal orderlies) is a Man Friday at an Indian Army officer's place attending to everyday household chores. On January 12, 2017, three days before Army Day, Lance Naik Yagya Pratap Singh, then posted with the 42nd Infantry Brigade of the Indian Army in Dehradun, uploaded a video on Facebook which soon went viral and was picked up by news channels, showing him in camouflage fatigues, talking about the ‘sahayak’ practice.

In June the previous year, Mr Singh said in the video, he had addressed a letter to the Prime Minister, the President, the Defence Minister, the Home Minister and the Supreme Court. The letter called for an end to the practice of assigning soldiers to officers as ‘sahayaks’, describing the practice as exploitative. Soldiers trained to fight the enemy, he said, should not be made to polish their officers’ shoes or walk their dogs.

Mr Singh said that his brigade had received an official query from the prime minister’s office regarding his complaint. Ever since, his commanders had begun exerting tremendous pressure on him, repeatedly questioning and abusing him. It was enough to make the average soldier kill himself or take some other “wrong step,” he added, “but I will not do that. I am a soldier, and as a soldier, I will not dishonour my uniform by hurting myself or someone else.”

These PBOR (Personnel Below Officer Rank) add up to perhaps 30,000 soldiers who are deployed as cooks, washermen and gardeners, besides ferrying officers’ children to and from school and even minding their pets – and it is often jokingly remarked in army messes that if sahayaks were to return to their units, the army could easily add another corps to its present 14.

This yawning hierarchical gulf between the officers and the soldiers underlines the legacy of the Raj when Indian soldiers simply didn't matter and they never figured in the scheme of the British-Indian Army. The same condescending legacy still continues. When fatalities occur during the army’s operations, Invariably the slain officers, if any, are identified in press statements on the incident by rank and name, but not the soldiers; they remain mere body count numerals.

The British made it clear that Indian soldiers, JCOs and NCOs must remain subservient to the British officers. In other words, there was no egalitarianism when it came to treating Indian personnel in the Army. Today's Indian Army does almost the same with a few stray exceptions. A JCO or NCO is not allowed to eat at an officers’ mess. This is the Pariah Syndrome which the Army must shake off. By the way, it has been my personal experience that the offspring of the Army officers invariably converse in English, the language of the 'elites, ' but the children of JCOs, NCOs and soldiers talk in Hindi, the tongue of the great unwashed and riffraff. This disparaging mentality also needs to be jolted in order to bring about equality in the services.

Indian Army officers need to shed the attitudinal baggage bequeathed to them by their erstwhile white masters and stay level-headed. The Army should be open to this revamp to emerge as less standoffish and more liberal.

The writer is a regular contributor to the world’s premier publications and portals in several languages

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